Playoff preview, predictions: Packers vs. Cowboys
What: No. 4 Green Bay Packers (11-6) vs. No. 1 Dallas Cowboys (13-3) in NFC divisional playoff game.
When: 3:40 p.m. Sunday.
Where: AT&T Stadium.
Radio: AM-620 in Milwaukee, AM-1360 in Green Bay; Packers Radio Network.
Series: Tied, 17-17.
Line: Cowboys by 4 1/2.
Surface: SoftTop Matrix Turf.
Coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy (123-68-1) vs. Dallas’ Jason Garrett (59-47).
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
TO BLITZ OR NOT BLITZ: RB Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s rushing champion, is also asked to pass protect, which can be an issue for a rookie. “A lot of times when you’re blitzing, you’re trying to win on the back,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said before playing Dallas on Dec. 1. “This back doesn’t get beat very much. Better than rookie backs for sure … He’s really one of the better backs I’ve seen in quite a while. He’s really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well. He’s quick into the hole. Looks like he has great vision. He’s an impact player on contact. He’s built. He’s physical. He’s a hurdler if you try to cut him. He’s special.”
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RUSHING RODGERS: In the Oct. 16 meeting, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli pressured on just 14.6% of dropbacks. Instead, the Cowboys usually rushed four and had their ordinary collection of defensive linemen run a number of stunts. “They don’t generate a lot of pressure, but with the way (Aaron) Rodgers plays they may match up pretty good,” said one personnel man. “The rush lanes won’t be as obvious for Rodgers to do his thing. You know, jump in and out of the open rush lanes. By not being a great rush team they may cause him more problems. I know that’s counterintuitive but … When you have guys (rushers) that win quickly he sees that so he steps up and adjusts. They really don’t have guys that win quickly but they also will stay in their rush lanes and make it kind of muddy for him.”
FOUR-CORNERS DEFENSE: When the teams met in Week 6, nickel back Orlando Scandrick (hamstrings) was out and LC Morris Claiborne departed after 25 snaps with a concussion. Now they’re healthy and, along with RC Brandon Carr and rookie Anthony Brown, should enable the Cowboys to contest passes. “There’s been some games where the Cowboys haven’t played as well but I think they have enough cover guys to match up,” one scout said. “Normally, I thought Scandrick was a pretty solid nickel corner. I was a little disappointed watching him. I had some questions in coverage about how he was reading and reacting. Brown has been OK, which for a rookie is good. I still have questions on him locating and playing the ball downfield, but he can run and has done a good job in coverage. And (FS Byron) Jones, I like his versatility against one-back teams. He can go down in the slot, he can be an in-the-box defender and he can be a two-deep player.”
TOP DOG: Dallas didn’t have a player on defense voted to the Pro Bowl. Possibly their best defender is WLB Sean Lee. “Very much underrated,” said one scout. “He’s the pulse of that defense. In years past when they weren’t very good defensively, he was injured. He makes a ton of plays. Gets guys lined up. Very intense, great leader. You can put him in the top five (of NFL every-down inside linebackers).” Said another personnel man: “Instinctive but plays small. More of a lateral player. He’s not going to stuff the run but he’ll make a lot of tackles and be in the right places. He is a smart guy.”
ON THE OUTSIDE: WR Dez Bryant, who challenged the Packers’ secondary in the past, missed the first meeting with a knee injury. “He’s a physical presence,” Zimmer said. “When the ball’s in the air, he believes it’s his every time. That’s always a concern. Catches the ball pretty much anywhere. I think the heart and mind of his is really what sets him apart.” In four appearances against Green Bay, Bryant has 24 catches for 286 yards (11.9) and two touchdowns. “Phenomenal player,” one scout said. “He always brings a different dynamic on the field because of how he plays. Big-time playmaker.”
VIEWS OF THE GAME
The Cowboys are the healthier team, the fresher team and the home team. They also whipped the Packers by 14 points in mid-October. None of the above matters when a team as confident and hot as Green Bay comes to call. Not only will the Packers beat the spread, I expect them to win.
The absence of Jordy Nelson might not hurt as much as people think, but it’s the defense that’s going to have to come through more than anything. Even when the Packers won in Atlanta in 2010, it was Tramon Williams’ interception that really changed the game. I’m not sure this defense has that kind of play in it. Cowboys 30, Packers 27
I don’t think anyone is going to stop Aaron Rodgers from putting up points. He’s playing too well for that. But I also don’t think the Packers can stop the Cowboys from running it successfully with Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys dominate the clock and squeak out a win. Cowboys 31, Packers 28
The Packers are playing as well as anybody, and Aaron Rodgers has been the NFL’s best player over the past two months. They have the stuff to pull off the upset. But the guess here is that Ezekiel Elliott will be the difference, as he was when the teams met in October. Cowboys 31, Packers 27
The Cowboys have more talent on their roster, especially with Jordy Nelson’s absence Sunday. But the Packers are the hotter team, playing as well as anyone in the league with seven straight wins. Neither defense will get stops, and the best bet is a two-time MVP quarterback at the top of his game rather than a rookie making his first playoff start. The Packers will need to score 30 points to win — and they will. Packers 34, Cowboys 31